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Atsuko Okatsuka All the Way: The Rise of a Comedian Like Nobody Else

Have you ever seen a Japanese reality show called Old Enough? Smash hit for decades that became a popular late-pandemic binge on Netflix here in the US. The gist is parents send their adorable toddlers out into the grown-up world to run a series of simple errands—pick up vegetables from the store, deliver a letter to a friend—and a camera crew tracks them from an extremely safe distance so we can watch what happens. It’s the best show ever made. Better than The Sopranos. The kids get distracted so easily, they make wrong turns, they stop to tell strangers about their friend who’s a frog. On average they complete two out of three errands.

Atsuko Okatsuka, the stand-up comic, identifies with those kids so much that she made a spoof of it last year for the Netflix Is a Joke comedy festival in Los Angeles. In her version, Arsenio Hall sends her out onto the streets to return a friend’s notebook—“Oh, she needs that!”—and pick up her festival swag bag, and take a selfie with a famous celebrity. “It should be easy for a grown comedian,” says the Japanese narrator. It’s not. She manages to complete the first two tasks but the last one is too hard. She winds up snapping a photo with a tourist who looks like Timothée Chalamet.

“I feel confident she’s friends with leprechauns,” says Tig Notaro, Atsuko’s close friend and fellow comic, who directed her breakout 2022 HBO special, The Intruder. “But she wouldn’t even realize she was talking to a leprechaun.”

Atsuko is pronounced “ahtz-ko,” by the way, and her last name is pronounced “oh-cots-ka,” which is definitely not how you were pronouncing either of them in your head—don’t worry, she says, no one ever gets them right—so for simplicity’s sake everyone just calls her Atsuko. She’s been called Costco, she says, and that’s closer than most people get. On her second date with her husband of six years (actually, they’ve only just gotten married but we’ll get to that later), he asked how well he was pronouncing her name on a scale of one to ten. She gave him a two. His name is Ryan Harper Gray, and he’s an actor and painter who put all that on the back burner so they could focus on her blossoming stand-up career. Now, before she goes onstage, he’ll often approach the MC and tell them how to pronounce Atsuko, because he’s more particular about it than she is.

Atsuko describes herself as a “ditz,” but this isn’t quite fair. It’s more like she often doesn’t seem entirely aware of her surroundings but is also blissfully unconcerned. “I say this with all the love in my heart: Atsuko’s living 10 seconds behind everything that’s happening around her,” says another friend, the comic D’Lo, who used to tour the country with her and Jenny Yang as a three-member crew called Disoriented Comedy. “So by the time she catches up to what’s happening, she’s like, ‘Oh. Okay.’ ” Atsuko does not dispute this.

I first meet her outside an arcade-style building in a tranquil, artsy, shop-lined neighborhood just outside of Boston. She’s in town to open a few shows for Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s Restless Leg tour, and she’s holding an unlit cigarette, which she’d like to smoke before we start the interview. She can’t find a lighter, though, and like one of those kids on Old Enough, she’s stumped. Not to worry. Gray, who serves as her producer, tour manager, social media video director, and body man in all senses of the term, is already on the case.

Atsuko is the easiest person to spot in the greater Boston area. Her precise Vantablack bowl cut has become such a trademark that fans occasionally show up for her shows in tribute wigs. One time she called them up onstage. “Oh, my God,” she cried as they surrounded her. “Look at us, looking like the Beatles!” In a profession not known for its fashion sense, Atsuko dresses like an avant-garde style visionary who does most of her shopping on Etsy. She favors bright colors—reds, yellows, electric blues—and bold patterns that have no business matching yet somehow match perfectly. She loves big, dangly food-themed earrings, often made of actual food.

“I should put my daughter Oona on the phone, who’s eight and wears her jewelry and is completely obsessed with Atsuko’s fashion,” says fellow comic Mike Birbiglia, who played a key role on her HBO special as an informal dramaturge. “I’m just gonna look on her site as a point of reference, but, like”—he begins to laugh—“oh, my God, the cheese snack earrings, um, the blood orange earrings, the Froot Loop set.” Today, she’s wearing cookies, and during our next conversation a few weeks later over Zoom, she’ll be wearing Life Savers. “It comes naturally to me,” Atsuko tells me. “It’s what I’m drawn to—colorful, you know, fun shapes. The things I wanted to wear as a kid, but I was too scared to stand out too much.”

She didn’t go full bowl cut until around 2017, which not so coincidentally is when she started finding her voice as a comic. She’s sure it has something to do with a stunted adolescence from what sounds like a nightmarish childhood, but she’s also not the type to process trauma through anger and dark eyeliner. She did go through those phases, onstage and off, but they never felt like her. This—bowl cut, cookie earrings, bright orange top she bought at a Taiwanese night market—is her. “If I’m gonna be me in the way I talk,” she says, “I’m gonna be me in the way I look too.”

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